Last week I began my latest teaching adventure–teaching college freshman English Composition. I’ve taught students necessary and even advanced writing skills over the years, and am so excited to begin this new endeavor!
The end-goal of the class is for the students to write four expository essays that conform to college writing standards. Specifically, the writing skills we will focus on , in this college writing class, are as follows:
- Identify an audience and a purpose appropriate to a specific writing contest
- Construct a thesis statement that takes a position or states a claim
- Utilize a tone which demonstrates awareness of the identified audience and purpose (in middle school we called this diction)
- Determine and employ the most effective expository mode (in middle school we called these non-fiction text structures) for the audience and purpose
- Develop paragraphs (including a conclusion) to support the thesis with evidence and logical reasoning
- Acknowledge views that are in opposition to the thesis
- Develop transitions and other strategies to achieve continuity and coherence
- Apply basic documentation rules that apply to MLA or APA
- Avoid the most common writing errors
Wait…did I miss something? Isn’t this EXACTLY what I focused on with my middle school writers? Aren’t these exactly (minus citing sources) the same writing skills I teach my SAT prep students concerning how to write the SAT essay?
In case you’ve missed something along the way, let me just say it plainly, in all caps…GOOD WRITING IS GOOD WRITING, no matter the context. Developing and honing writing skills is a pursuit of all who write, regardless of age or grade level. As writing gets more sophisticated, tweaks in learned writing skills are necessary to fit the new, higher level of writing at each step along the way.
Is Student Writing Getting Worse?
In 2008, College Composition and Communication in 2008, published an article entitled “Mistakes are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study.” This is one of the resources I’m am using to hone in on just exactly what “common writing errors” we should focus on as the semester proceeds in my freshman composition class.
If you would like to spend a good deal of time reading and analyzing this article, please do. If not, let me share a few details and break down the information here for you:
- The study, conducted by Lunsford and Lunsford, in 2006 patterned itself after similar studies about student writing errors conducted in 1917, 1930, and 1996, in that actual student writing was analyzed for number and types of errors present. Regardless of the year, all of the studies examined the writing of college freshman.
Here are the findings in types of errors from the earliest studies:
- The 1986 study listed these findings:
The 2006 Study Findings:
- Read the article for the technicalities concerning how the papers were collected, how the rubric was developed, as well as other information about the methodology employed if you are so inclined. This was quite an arduous process to say the least!
- The 2006 study listed these findings:
- If you’re thinking the errors look like about the same types of errors students were making a hundred years ago, then I would have to agree with you. Of note, though, is that “spelling” has been replaced with “wrong word.” A testament, the researchers say, to our modern use of technology to aid us in correcting spelling errors. Spell check does not pick up on similar words spelled incorrectly and likewise students often cannot differentiate subtle differences in words that sound alike but have different meanings and spellings. Often, they will choose to go with the word at the top of the correct spelling suggestions rather than ascertain they are choosing the right word to fit the context from among the choices. The Never Stop Learning YouTube channel has developed a number of word use lesson videos to help writers learn to choose the right word to fit their context. Here is one of my most popular videos from the “How to Choose the Right Word” playlist:
- Of note, the researchers indicated that though it seems like student writers are making more errors, they are, in fact, writing more prolifically, without a doubt a testament to the ease of word processing compared to writing long hand:
And the answer is…
No, student writing is not getting worse! In fact, though the number of total errors has increased slightly, juxtaposed against the fact that the average paper length has grown nearly ten-fold since 1917, it seems that student writing is getting better!
So why write this post at all? Well, we haven’t exactly achieved perfection yet, have we? It is my hope that this information will equip writing teachers, at all levels, to deal more intentionally with helping to educate students on how to avoid common writing mistakes.
One Last Thought…
I’ve taught college before, but my students have always been education majors. The course I’m now teaching includes students from across majors, and best of all, is overwhelmingly made up of new college students who have not yet had enough time to develop poor college study habits. In fact, at our first class meeting, as is my customary intro with any class, regardless of age level, we examined Dr. Chew’s video series “How to Get the Most Out of Studying.” For ideas on how I developed Dr. Chew’s philosophies into practical classroom applications, please see my blog entitled “Teach Students Deep Processing Skills.”
My Favorite Resources for Teaching Students to Avoid Common Writing Errors:
Some resources from one of my college professors, a lady whom I still consider to be a great grammar guru, Dr. Constance Weaver:
The workbook that my students used in my middle school classroom:
Handbooks from authors I admire:
A book I contributed to (my part starts on page 48!):